Japan PM resigns after US base row

Japan’s centre-left Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, tearfully resigned on Wednesday, just nine months after a stunning election win, his brief reign derailed by a row over an unpopular United States airbase.

Hatoyama ended more than half a century of conservative rule in an electoral earthquake last August, but soon earned a reputation for crippling indecision at the helm of the world’s second-biggest economy.

The 63-year-old millionaire, the scion of an influential family dubbed “Japan’s Kennedys”, quit at a meeting of his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), blaming the base dispute and political funding scandals.

“I will step down,” an emotional Hatoyama told party lawmakers at a special meeting in Parliament, while also vowing to “create a new DPJ”.

“The government’s work has not reflected the public’s wishes,” said Hatoyama, who formally remains as premier until a successor is voted in.

“I apologise to all of you lawmakers here for causing enormous trouble.”

The party plans to vote for a new leader on Friday. Finance Minister Naoto Kan, who is a deputy prime minister, was widely tipped to succeed Hatoyama.

The new DPJ chief must then be elected as prime minister by Parliament in a vote expected later the same day. On Monday the new premier is expected to give a policy address and formally launch his new Cabinet, said the DPJ.

Speculation had swirled for days that Hatoyama would quit as his approval ratings, once more than 70%, crashed below the 20% mark.

The premier’s rapid demise since he took office in mid-September was driven by the festering dispute over a US Marine Corps airbase on Okinawa Island that badly strained ties with the US, Tokyo’s bedrock ally.

Hatoyama, a Stanford-trained engineering scholar, took power vowing less subservient ties with Washington and closer engagement with Asia, worrying many Japan watchers in the US.

He promised to move the US base off Okinawa, to ease the burden for locals who have long complained of aircraft noise, pollution and crime associated with a heavy American military presence since World War II.

Backtrack
But, after failing to find an alternative location for the base in Japan, the premier backtracked and decided to keep it on the island, enraging Okinawans and his pacifist coalition partners the Social Democrats.

The left-leaning group quit his three-party coalition on Sunday, weakening the government in Parliament’s upper house ahead of elections for the chamber expected on July 11, in which the DPJ expects to take a beating.

The DPJ’s most influential figure, secretary general Ichiro Ozawa, quit after Hatoyama asked him to step down. Both men have been embroiled in political funding scandals.

Hatoyama’s wealthy mother handed large donations to his electoral war chest, triggering a criminal investigation that saw a close aide receive suspended jail terms.

Ozawa, described as the “Shadow Shogun” for his power behind the throne, has seen three of his current and former aides indicted for cooking the books. Prosecutors have also questioned Ozawa himself and raided his offices.

Hatoyama identified the funding scandals and the Okinawa issue as the two main reasons for his demise.

“I have caused trouble for the people of Okinawa,” he said.

“Cooperation between Japan and the US is inevitable for peace and security in East Asia, so I had to ask Okinawans, with regret, to bear the burden.”

Japan will honour the latest accord struck with Washington, to relocate the base within Okinawa, under a new premier, the top government spokesperson, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano, said at a press conference.

Apart from the finance minister, other potential successors include Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, Transport Minister Seiji Maehara and Deputy Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda. — AFP

Kyoko Hasegawa
Kyoko Hasegawa
Staff writer at Agence France Presse.
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